WASHINGTON -- While Sen. Marco Rubio may be among the most prominent faces of the immigration battle in Washington, there is another Cuban-American from Miami who has been almost as critical to guiding the contentious proposal through the perils of Capitol Hill.
His name is Leon Fresco.
But unlike Rubio and thousands of other Cuban Miamians, Fresco’s a Democrat.
The 1995 Miami Beach High School graduate who twice made it to the national championships in debate — the Miami Herald gave the then 17-year-old a Silver Knight award — is now New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer’s right-hand man on immigration and arguably the debate’s most critical cog whom few people know.
Fresco, now 35, led the brutal negotiating sessions, some of which lasted until 2 a.m., with staffers of the so-called “Gang of Eight” bipartisan Senate team. He orchestrated several of the most delicate compromises, including the final and most difficult agreement between labor and business interests, which allowed both Democrats and Republicans to claim victory.
And it was his hands on the keyboard drafting passages of the original, 844-page bill that the group ratified.
“He put in the longest of all the long hours,” said Chandler Morse, the immigration staff negotiator for Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. “He was the one that everyone called.
“He was the one that the Republicans called when they were mad about how things were going,” Morse said. “And he was the one Democrats called when they were mad about how things were going. And in a two-party system, someone is always angry.”
As most often is the case in Washington, the most significant work on the deal happened behind closed doors, far from the cameras.
Senators gave their negotiators the principles to follow, a framework, compromises they could and could not accept, and then sent them off to find a solution on matters that have plagued the nation for decades.
The staffers, about 20 of them ranging in age from their late 20s to their mid-40s, had the daunting task of coming up with a new law of the land that likely would impact almost every aspect of American life, from who we let in the country to who we elect for office.
For Fresco, the charge was clear: Figure out a way. Find that sweet spot where everyone can get something they want, without conceding so much they can’t face their constituencies. Make a deal.
AT ‘THE DOME’
The group met daily from January to April in a room they dubbed “The Dome.”
Fresco set the group’s agenda. He pushed compromise, but he also established bright lines where he and other Democrats wouldn’t budge — such as refusing to raise a controversial 15,000-visa cap for foreign construction workers that builders and contractors find preposterously low. He led the daily disputes over border security provisions, business and labor demands, and establishing the criteria used to determine who among the 11 million here illegally would have the privilege of being able to apply for citizenship. He also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind when he felt he or his boss had been blindsided.
When Rubio released a statement on Easter Sunday calling talks of a deal premature after Schumer and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., went on a media blitz touting an imminent agreement, a frustrated Fresco fired off an angry email to Enrique Gonzalez, Rubio’s immigration negotiator.